Social Justice

Feeding the Chinese City

Interviews with takeout delivery drivers in China, translated for the first time since the story of their struggle went viral on WeChat.
Takeout delivery drivers are the cornerstone holding up a market that brings in nearly 300 billion RMB each year in China. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened their already difficult working conditions, but also given rise to spontaneous mobilization through internet platforms and mutual aid networks.
Takeout delivery drivers are the cornerstone holding up a market that brings in nearly 300 billion RMB each year in China. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened their already difficult working conditions, but also given rise to spontaneous mobilization through internet platforms and mutual aid networks.

The COVID-19 pandemic that broke out in China at the beginning of the year has been an unprecedented trial for our country. The “hardcore” lockdown measures across the country have minimized the risk of cross-infection from people moving about and gathering in crowds.

However, in order for residents to comply with the government’s lockdown orders and comfortably stay at home to fight the virus, community workers, takeout delivery workers and express couriers have had to shoulder greater risk and a larger workload in order to guarantee the basic material needs of all residents.

According to reports, just as factories and schools across the country closed and restaurants began only accepting delivery orders, the entire country still had 700,000 food delivery workers remaining at their posts, making people’s lives easier.

What does it mean to become a foot soldier of this million-strong army? Who knows about the joys and sorrows of life among them? Having been introduced by the Takeout Delivery Workers’ Alliance, we connected with Guo Yongqiang from Shanghai. Yongqiang in turn invited “Brother Long” from Lujiazui [Lokatse, in Pudong]. At the end of April, our Takeout Delivery Worker Interviewing Team spoke with them.

“The takeout delivery workers in this interviewing session include one person in his thirties (Brother Long) with a sturdy frame and a ruddy face, who during the course of our conversation demonstrated energy and zeal. Being a father, he seems to harbour many wishes about what he wants to achieve in life. The other person was a tall and lanky young man in his twenties (Yongqiang) from Gansu. When he walked into the room, his neat and tidy apparel—from his windbreaker and his shirt to his leather shoes—gave me a sense of awe. He didn’t seem like your typical takeout delivery worker. Afterwards, I found out that he had picked up a security guard job for the time being while still actively managing his own takeout delivery workers’ WeChat group chat. This is a young man who left home to make his own way in the world at age 15, who had been cheated and swindled before, who speaks in a shy manner but can still stand on his own two feet. “These two people were asked questions by four interviewers, and after the interview had ended they still had much more to say,” recalled one of the interviewers Ya Tong.

In this unusual spring, they and the takeout delivery workers whom they represent suffered a blow —the number of takeout orders fell substantially, yet the furlough of workers caused by the pandemic had intensified the competition within the takeout delivery industry. Amid increasing uncertainty, what path will these delivery workers take?

“We really have no choice but to run red lights”: a leash for takeout delivery workers in the age of big data

In the news, we often hear of “takeout delivery boys getting fined for running red lights”, or of them getting into collisions with pedestrians or causing conflict due to driving too fast. However, is this really the result of these “delivery boys” valuing the money they make from deliveries above the safety of themselves or even that of other people? Brother Long explained his perspective on this question.

“Actually, the fact that delivery drivers run red lights is also because we have no choice, really because we are forced to. Why? For example, if a customer places an order and the time limit is 30 minutes, by the time the system sends us the order we’ll only have 28 or 29 minutes left. When we get to the business to pick up the food, sometimes we will have to wait 2 or 3 minutes. If the business can get the food out to us on time, then that’s pretty good, but if they can’t and they need 10 more minutes, we will only have 10 minutes left by the time the food gets into our hands. If you have five orders at one time, you have to run to three or five different places, pick up five different meals, and then deliver them to five different customers. This amount of time is really too tight. The platform doesn’t care. They only prompt me that a customer has placed an order, that I have to deliver it within half an hour, and that I will get penalized if I go over time.”

Even though Meituan gives a certain amount of leeway to drivers during cases of tardiness or customer complaints, the leeway is actually extremely limited, and they will not give sufficient consideration to the many different problems that takeout delivery workers will likely face under real working conditions. Brother Long gives us an example. At first, Meituan had a seven-minute grace period, where if the food is delivered within 37 minutes, then it would not be considered going over the time limit. However, if we consider that the driver has to pick up the food, wait for the food and then deliver the food within this amount of time, and take into account all the unforeseen factors that can arise, this tiny amount of consideration is far from humane for the delivery drivers. Furthermore, in Meituan’s evaluation system, the percentage of acceptable errors for every 100 orders is 5%. In other words, drivers will begin to be penalized after more than five late deliveries. What’s more, penalties are levied based on the percentage of orders that the driver delivers on time. This means that if a driver’s on-time delivery rate is low, their income will drop correspondingly. Even if the remaining 90 out of 100 orders are delivered on-time, the payment for each order will be docked because the percentage of order errors is above 5%.

So, who is controlling and shaping the working conditions of delivery drivers? It’s neither managers nor station masters, but rather a system based on algorithms which automatically assign orders to drivers. Delivery system platforms such as Meituan and Ele.me automatically send the optimal order to drivers based on the capabilities of the worker and the delivery route, among other factors. But this “platformization” of takeout delivery also brings about a “one-size-fits-all” solution to management. Even the error rate is a crude and conservative estimate, which scarcely accounts for the extremely complicated and highly diverse situations faced by different takeout delivery workers due to weather, road conditions, the speed by which different businesses produce orders, and other factors.

Even more dangerous is the fact that, under this kind of evaluation system, a low on-time delivery rate means a low payout per order. Eventually, you can reach a point where you will not be given any more orders, which means you have been completely kicked out from the “evaluation” process, thus even losing the right to be exploited. In this process, AI algorithms control every action and the speed and quality of the worker, while the worker is forced to have a high degree of self-discipline. As a result, this kind of labor is a far cry from the freedom, flexibility and high pay that is advertised during hiring promotion by these takeout delivery platforms. Rather, it is a “precise and dynamically adjusted model of labor control”. When takeout delivery workers are supposedly freely choosing their work hours (when hiring, the platform often advertise saying “take it easy, take it seriously, or take it to the limit”, giving the impression that delivery drivers have a high degree of choice), they are actually downloading a precise tool of control into their hands and are being forced to adapt to cater to the whims of AI. Thus, and it is not difficult to understand, the reason why delivery drivers treat time as money is because they truly cannot bear the consequences of not achieving the “on-time delivery rate” standard.

Beyond this, because the platform has shifted part of the role of supervising labor to the consumer in the form of customer ratings, one bad rating can subject a driver to a 20 RMB penalty, while with a “complaint” they can incur hundreds of RMB in penalties. As a result, out of worry that they will receive an untimely order which could lead to a bad rating from the customer, many delivery drivers face an extremely large amount of emotional pressure when delivering orders. In order to avoid having customers make things difficult for them in the course of delivering orders, many delivery drivers make sure to say as many pleasantries to the customer as they can while enduring this stress, placing their own dignity and self-esteem at the very bottom of their priorities. However, because Meituan’s rating system is anonymous, sometimes even if a driver receives a bad rating, they would have no idea where it came from. All the driver can do is to suffer in silence. The most important thing is the fines from complaints do not go back to the customers. “Who knows where it all goes in the end?” Brother Long told us.

Furthermore, in order to put an end to takeout delivery workers pressing the “delivered” button in advance, Meituan takes advantage of the platform’s GPS function to track the driver’s location in real-time. If the driver violates that rule, they will directly receive up to 500 RMB in penalties without any warning.

Besides passing on all these risks to the driver and redirecting the dissatisfaction of the customer from the “platform” to the workers themselves, the platforms are also incredibly harsh in dealing with “penalties” and “canceling penalties”. The platforms have adopted the workflow of “first penalize, then report, audit and cancel” in order to handle penalties. This is to say that, no matter the situation, the driver assumes responsibility by default. We provide Meituan’s “You see that you will soon go over time, but the customer is not picking up their phone. What should you do?” guided checklist as an example:

  1. The driver must arrive at the assigned location and call the customer multiple times by phone. In the case that no one picks up the phone during all attempts, proceed to step 2.
  2. Order details —> Problem encountered —> Cannot reach customer —> Attempt to dial all phone numbers used by customer. If this still does not reach the customer —> Report an issue

    If the customer initiates a second delivery attempt within 30 minutes, then you must complete the delivery.

    If the customer does not initiate a second delivery attempt within 30 minutes, you may cancel the order without penalty. The order must be returned to the business, and you must take a picture as evidence and upload it on the app.

  3. If the customer initiates a second delivery attempt, you may extend the time allotted based on your situation, in order to avoid going over time.

    If the customer does not initiate a second delivery attempt, you must cancel the order. Within 2 hours of successfully returning the order, you can avoid a cancellation deduction and can automatically be reimbursed the delivery fee.

This process is not only tedious and convoluted, but the driver also does not receive any extra compensation for the second delivery attempt and even has to face additional uncertainty. And if a driver incurs a late delivery penalty due to not being allowed into the neighbourhood, weather conditions or other reasons that are not caused by the driver themselves, the platforms will handle this issue according to a similar process. This is also to say that, in the process of working, these “delivery boys” often are put in disadvantaged positions. The platform has complete decision-making power over whether deducted pay will return to a delivery worker’s account in the end. Meanwhile, the “delivery boys” are often overwhelmed with orders in the course of work, thus having no time to defend their own rights.

The silent gears of the city?

Impacted by the pandemic, many exporting companies have had their orders dramatically reduced. Usually, these large-scale manufacturing factories are important places that receive the surplus labor of the countryside and small cities and towns. At present, however, for many young people who are out of work due to factory closures, coming to Tier 1 cities to work in food delivery is practically their best chance out of all remaining options.

As “Meituan-Dianping: 2018 Research Report on Takeout Delivery Drivers” demonstrates, 75% of delivery drivers come from the countryside, most of whom originate from Henan, Anhui, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces. Almost 70% of delivery drivers chose to leave their hometowns to try to make a living and struggle in Tier 1 or Tier 2 cities. Taking a look at age, delivery drivers are mostly found in the youth demographic, with those in their twenties and thirties forming the core—up to 82%—of the delivery driver community. Almost half of them have lived in their current working location for 9 years or more, having set deep roots in the city. With regard to sex distribution, male drivers account for 90% while female drivers account for 10%. From these figures, we can roughly sketch out a portrait of the “delivery boys” of the vigorous, rising China of the present: they are a group of young males of rural origin who are long-time urban residents, hoping to achieve self-actualization in the city.

Having come to the big city, beyond chasing after delivery orders, what is the daily life of these delivery drivers like? What kind of social interaction, love life, living circumstances and personal plans do they have?

We will start by discussing living circumstances and the cost of living. To take Shanghai as an example, Brother Long tells us that a common situation at his delivery driver station located in Lujiazui is that delivery drivers will rent in groups, with eight drivers sleeping in a barely 20 square meter-sized flat. This kind of flat in Lujiazui costs around 800 RMB per month even if the cost is spread out equally among all the flatmates.

Brother Long also tells us that when a new driver comes to Shanghai, they will have to spend around 10,000 RMB at first, usually not having worked at all. This amount includes rent, deposit, buying or renting (which also requires a deposit) a battery-powered bike, over 300 RMB worth of driver equipment, and other kinds of basic expenses. If the driver has already gotten married or sends money to their parents each month, the amount of money left for themselves is even smaller.

Faced with high rent and cost of living, what activities can drivers do in their spare time? Or perhaps, just like the girl in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” who must spin without stopping even for a moment, they can only be constantly on the move in order to earn a livelihood? They have become the biggest guarantor for fast and convenient urban life, but they have no way of enjoying the conveniences and extravagance that they themselves create.

For drivers who have already started a family, this kind of distress is no doubt even worse. Brother Long and his wife have not seen each other for a long time. Despite being in the same city, they cannot help but become a 21st-century version of Romeo and Juliet. And as for those drivers who already have children, the pressures and hardships of family life are all much more severe.

Unite and demand: will the Takeout Delivery Drivers’ Alliance become a new hope for delivery driver mutual aid?

According to statistics, the current number of active delivery drivers in the entire country has reached 3 million people. They are the cornerstone holding up the takeout delivery market that brings in nearly 300 billion RMB each year in China. The question of how to help delivery drivers establish fairer labor relations in the process of achieving their dreams deserves the attention of our entire society.

As the platforms do not allow drivers to organize unions, the fact that delivery drivers have used Internet platforms to bring about spontaneous mobilization is astonishing. Yongqiang and Brother Long separately belong to two different driver mutual aid communities.

The mutual aid community of which Yongqiang is a part is called the “Takeout Delivery Workers’ Alliance”, which was founded by a delivery driver in Beijing. It aims to unite and protect delivery drivers’ rights. The Beijing head is an expert at using new media techniques to spread content more widely. He makes videos about many things that are related to takeout delivery worker life—a true master of video. Yongqiang meanwhile sees watching videos not only as entertainment but also as a path to self-improvement. “After work, when other people are all playing games, I can study for a bit. My studying is watching how other people shoot videos.”

His character, the kind that is used to finding the silver lining in every cloud and keeping an optimistic outlook, is one that perhaps is closely intertwined with his adolescent years. Ex-soldier Yongqiang once was tricked into joining a multi-level marketing scheme by an ex-girlfriend whom he had met on the Internet. Having just fled from that unfortunate experience, after having gone through numerous twists and turns in life, apart from the property and emotional loss, his experience from that period of time undoubtedly and imperceptibly propelled him to undergo a transformation. While in the multi-level marketing organization, he slept on the floor over a long period of time. He said that in that period of time, he realized that “the floor-bed is the biggest bed in the world, that is something I will never forget.”

This experience of being swindled and sinking into that quagmire allowed him to not only learn how to actively confront everything in life but also allowed him to move his gaze from the individual to the system, compelling him to develop a great concern for the lives and happiness of the delivery driver community. Yongqiang’s style is to build a face-to-face community, letting brothers and sisters participate in more activities and have more heart-to-heart conversations and social interactions. In so doing, they can strengthen their ties of friendship and de-stress. “I hope to be able to organize offline activities within this community, such as making a community flag, organizing offline dinners where we would all split the bill, and so on. To let everyone interact to the full and have support.”

Brother Long was entrusted by Jiang Yilong, the founder of Hangzhou Delivery Driver Media, to found Shanghai Lujiazui Delivery Driver Media. Why were delivery driver mass channels able to develop and expand so quickly, expanding from Hangzhou all the way to Pudong district in Shanghai, and again to Baoshan district? This is because the founders of the delivery driver media channels have done many practical things to help delivery drivers.

Jiang Yilong is precisely the designer of the Hangzhou area “delivery driver building number sorting map”. He rendered the residential neighbourhoods within a 5-10 kilometre radius into a two-dimensional map and then labelled it with building numbers. This has made things much easier for newly inducted delivery drivers.

Beyond this, Jiang Yilong and Brother Long’s delivery driver media channels have also helped delivery drivers connect with relatively cheaper battery-powered bike rentals, lithium battery rentals, emergency bike repair, battery charging and other services. This kind of convenience has even extended to the realm of the delivery drivers’ basic needs, such as affordable flats, side-jobs and so on. There are also the “delivery driver meals” that Brother Long is rather proud of. In the “Haitian Yijiao” food centre in Lujiazui, Brother Long was able to talk down some meal prices from their usual 14 or 15 RMB to 10 or 12 RMB. This has helped delivery drivers save a good sum of money gradually over time, and also has helped businesses address the problem of lack of customers during the pandemic period.

In the delivery drivers community, this kind of mutual aid practice based on specific areas has become a common occurrence. If there is anyone in the community who has come into special circumstances and cannot deliver an order on time, or if there is any need for help in life or in work, community members will encourage each other to help out. For the delivery drivers, all of this is not for the purpose of seeking something in return, but rather because everyone is fully aware that coming to the big city to eke out a living is not an easy thing. If they do not help each other, then it is hard to establish themselves in the city.

“Wherever there are delivery drivers, there will be delivery driver media channels”. This is the slogan that founder Jiang Yilong writes in every post on delivery driver media channels. “Three inferior cobblers can best even a genius like Zhu Geliang”, Brother Long smiled at us, saying these words while brimming with confidence.

When asked about an event that left a particularly deep impression on him during his time as a delivery driver, Brother Long replied: “In the last two days I saw a brother outside. While he was driving his bike, a cat suddenly jumped out in front of him. To avoid hitting the cat, he slammed the brakes and fell off his bike, and I think he even cracked his ribs when he fell. When I saw him, I drove my bike over there to help him up. And just at that moment, there happened to be two other guys who also stopped and came to help him up. I asked him if there was anything wrong. He said it didn’t hurt, but at the time he still had two orders in his hand. I asked him, are you sure you’re okay? If you’re not, then let me help you deliver those. He felt around and said that there wasn’t a big problem, but it seemed to be me it was not a light fall because all of his things were scattered everywhere after he fell. Fortunately, the food hadn’t spilled, otherwise, he would have to pay for them himself. Afterward, I saw him again and heard him say that he only went back home to rest after having finished delivering the orders. He laid in bed for two days, so at the time it really must not have been a light fall.”

In the perspectives of society, the platforms and consumers, these drivers play the role of dedicated gears in the machine. Perhaps only when they face each other and face themselves can they truly experience mutual respect and a visceral feeling of sympathy for each other and become lively individuals, each and every one of them. It is this connected sense of belonging that perhaps contributed to the exceptionally united, positive, and cooperative characteristic of the drivers community.

Afterword

The second and third day after the interview, Ya Tong, one of the interviewers, saw some videos in a group of takeout delivery workers being shoved and insulted by public security officers or traffic police which a young delivery boy group admin shared. She also invited two other delivery worker brothers into the group. “Several weeks later, I asked them in the group if the fathers in the takeout delivery workers’ group needed some guidance services to learn how to interact better with their children who they have left behind. They said of course there is a need, but takeout delivery workers are far too busy and too inept at organizing together,” she said.

Meanwhile, another interviewer Cai Cai hopes that society will be able to treat takeout delivery workers well: “Like the example of a doorman’s attitude, the customer should be sympathetic and lenient. When there is any small or big accident on the road, if people could lend a helping hand, like if a bike turns over then help it back up a little, etc. They are also members of a family—in fact, they are the backbone.”

Furthermore, Cai Cai also shared an appeal from a delegate of the National People’s Congress, which gives us some hope for the protection of the rights of takeout delivery workers.

China News Service: “In view of the particular characteristics of new forms of employment such as ‘gig employment’, I am drafting a social security policy that will feasibly guarantee the rights of this workforce… I propose that we further improve our policies, and love and care for our takeout delivery drivers.” At this year’s Two Sessions, “emerging occupations” including takeout delivery workers have become a passionately discussed topic among delegates. “At present, new forms of employment are diversifying, and ways of getting a job are clearly increasing.”

More than 70% of takeout delivery workers come from counties and the countryside. Their level of education is not high, and they face difficulties such as a high intensity of work, a severe lack of supporting facilities for safeguarding employment, and an imperfect labor protections and social security system, etc.

To address this, Yu Chunmei proposed a motion to incorporate the takeout delivery driver group under the coverage of local workers’ compensation insurance. In proven cases of takeout delivery work injury where all facts are clear, the rights and obligations are clear, and both concerned parties have no dispute, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security will deal with the matter so that it is quickly determined and quickly resolved. At the same time, it was also proposed to include “takeout delivery drivers” into the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security’s “National Directory of Vocational Qualifications”, thus expanding operations such as the vocational skills training.

This article was originally published by "Awaken Club" on WeChat.

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Available in
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Author
Tangzhe Li
Translator
Quinton Huang
Date
12.10.2020

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